Once again, the public airwaves are being filled with noise regarding purported voter fraud. This past week, President Trump resurrected his claims that “millions of people” voted illegally in the November election. This time, however, he has vowed to take executive action to commence a national inquiry in response.
For African Americans, cries of voter fraud bear a racially-charged tone. Historically, we have seen voter fraud used as a basis to push laws and restrictions at the local and state level that suppress the rights of minority voters. There are a number of restrictions that come straight out of the voter suppression playbook. Voter purge programs or efforts to “clean up” the registration rolls are one familiar tactic. Strict government-issued photo identification requirements that prohibit people from voting unless they posses a certain form of ID is another such tactic. In Texas, a photo ID law put in place in 2013 was found to disenfranchise more than 600,000 voters at the time it was put in place. Among them were many poor people who simply lacked one of the few forms of qualifying identification.
But voter fraud has also been used as a basis for conducting sweeps of communities in a purported attempt to find illegal activity. One person who executed this tactic well was Senator Jeff Sessions whose nomination to serve as U.S. Attorney General is now pending. As a former U.S. Attorney in Alabama, Sessions conducted investigations into alleged voter fraud across the Black Belt section of the state. His investigations involved deployment of the FBI to investigate poor Black voters, indictments of civil rights activists, and prosecutions that resulted in acquittals. Though Sessions voter fraud prosecutions did not bear fruit, the stinging legacy of his efforts lingered on. The chilling effect on Black voters in Alabama was undeniable.
In a powerful letter opposing Sessions’ nomination to become a federal judge, Coretta Scott King wrote that Sessions “used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly Black voters.” She described his conduct as “reprehensible” and her damning words led a bi-partisan group of Senators to flatly reject his nomination.
President Trump’s recent threat of a national voter fraud inquiry is especially troubling at this moment because Sessions, his attorney general nominee, has proven capable of carrying out this kind of scheme. For that reason, we should all be concerned. Only heightening the concern that any such inquiry could be racially-tinged are recent reports which suggest that the President’s conceptions about voter fraud are rooted in a loose story shared by a golfer. Reports indicate that the president shared a story last week, in a meeting with Congressional leaders, about a famous golfer not being allowed to vote while individuals who looked like they were from Latin American countries were able to vote. While the details surrounding the encounter have not been confirmed, the mere fact that the Trump relayed the story in the way that he did makes clear that race and ethnicity drives his thinking about who is behind the non-existent voter fraud that he is concerned with.
That said, bombastic claims about voter fraud run contrary to the evidence amassed this election cycle. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law leads the nation’s largest non-partisan voter protection program. Through our Election Protection program, we received calls and complaints from voters across the country. In the context of our work, voters complain about barriers to the franchise. Their concerns help shed light on the kind of reforms needed across the country to help expand voting access such as Same Day Registration and online voter registration. Of more than 117,000 calls and complaints in 2016, we did not receive a single complaint about voter fraud. In fact, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than seeing voter fraud in an election.
It is time to put the myth of voter fraud to rest. Our democracy faces real, substantiated threats. Ongoing voting discrimination, voter suppression and reported Russian efforts to influence our election warrant close study and scrutiny. American democracy works best when we are willing to address issues and problems that are grounded in real facts and actual data.
Kristen Clarke is President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Follow her on Twitter @KristenClarkeJD.